Styrofoam Recycling: How To Dispose Of Expanded Polystyrene Responsibly

you can recycle styrofoam

Odds are, you can’t put items made from #6 plastic – polystyrene – into your blue bin or recycling dumpster. The reason from this comes down to economics: expanded polystyrene (the most common form of the material, also called EPS), or Styrofoam, is 98% air, so it takes up a lot of space. Any company involved in Styrofoam recycling is going to have to account for that space in its storage and transportation… and the fact that this material will likely crowd out other recyclables. Finally, because of all that air, a recycler has to collect a lot of it to get an economically viable amount of the material.

There is technology for recycling Styrofoam, though, as well as demand for it: according to the EPS Industry Alliance, “…overΒ 127 million pounds of EPS were recycled in 2013, includingΒ 72.8 million pounds of post-consumer packaging andΒ 54.5 million pounds of post-industrial packaging. Over the past decade EPS has achieved an average recycling rate of 15%…” So far, that technology and demand don’t outweigh the economics outlined above, so you have to work a little harder, and perhaps spend a little money, to recycle the foam that you might collect from product shipping and packaging.

So, got Styrofoam piling up in the basement or garage that you’d really like to get rid of, but responsibly? Here are your options:

Reuse it: Keep in mind that the downsides of expanded polystyrene – its long life space in a landfill – can be a strength: it’s durable material. It’s also a great insulator. So, maybe it’s time to consider making your own Wonderbag, or using Styrofoam packing boxes as coolers. It’s probably best not to use foam products that directly held food or drink, though, as some of what it held is still stuck in the porous material: don’t want to make anyone sick. But shipping packaging should be fine on this front.

Recycle it: Once you’ve run out of reuses, or once those items break or otherwise become unusable, it’s time to find a recycling solution. You’ve got a number of options here:

  • Check Your Curbside Details: There are a number of communities in California, as well as San Antonio, Texas, that allow Styrofoam in their curbside recycling bins.
  • Drop-off Centers : There are a number of recycling centers around the US that allow you to drop off expanded polystyrene (and check Earth 911 or 1800Recycling to get a full picture). If you find there’s one nearby, don’t become a victim of Styrofoam economics: load up as well as you can before delivering your materials. Also check the fine print to see what’s not accepted (possibly food-stained containers, at the very least). Many don’t accept packing peanuts, so check here for recycling centers that do take “loose fill foam.”
  • Mail-in Centers: If there’s not a drop-off center nearby, mailing your Styrofoam to a recycler is another option. Again, you’re running into the issue of space, but packages are charged by weight: you shouldn’t end up paying a lot for this.

Reduce It: Of course, reducing your use of Styrofoam products is the easiest solution. Avoid foam take-out cups, trays, and to-go containers whenever possible. Ask your favorite restaurants to consider switching to paper or cardboard, or maybe offer a discount for patrons that bring their own to-go containers.

Know of other resources for Styrofoam recycling? Share them with us…

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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